Alessandro Del Piero not coming to MLS, signs with Sydney FC

Alessandro Del Piero
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Juventus icon Alessandro Del Piero will unsettle the hearts of many North American Serie A fans with the news his next stop will be down under. While rumors in this quadrant of the world had sparked their anticipation – linking the 37-year-old with moves to New York, Montreal, and Los Angeles – del Piero has instead signed a two-year, $4 million deal with Sydney FC.

Announcing the move on their club web site, Sydney FC labeled the signing a “major coup” and “a historic day for football in this country.”

“Alessandro Del Piero is a global icon of the game and we are honoured he has chosen Sydney FC, ahead of many other options, as the club where he will begin the next chapter of his illustrious football career.”

Del Piero, speaking to press in Turin, echoed some of the sentiments we heard from Didier Drogba as the Ivorian moved to China – new worlds, new adventures and whatnot:

“This is a very big moment for me because I want to continue my career in a new part of the world where I can make a major contribution and help grow the game I love. The most important thing for me has always been the football and I want to help Sydney FC be successful.

“This is an exciting journey for me and I look forward to joining my new team mates in Sydney shortly.”

Del Piero’s move to Australia is a miss for Major League Soccer, but it’s hard to point the finger at any organization and ask “why didn’t you sign him?” The closest is Montreal, who have a small Italian enclave in Quebec, some money, and some flexibility within their roster. Still, it’s hard to fault a team for not paying over $2 million per season to a soon-to-be 38-year-old, especially when their other older Italian import (Alessandro Nesta) is playing for much less.

If Montreal stopped, pulled away from the “coup” of signing del Piero and asked “how can we put this money to better use,” the signing quickly loses some of its luster.

As for New York and Los Angeles, it would be difficult to justify moving any non-Rafa Marquez designated player to make room for del Piero. Each team is already maxed out on designated players. New York has Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill in addition to the immovable Marquez, and while there is (still) some speculation that Robbie Keane or Landon Donovan could leave Los Angeles for England, it’s not worth entertaining that to bring in del Piero.

But as much as roster rules, this decision seems to have come down to money. Alessandro Del Piero got an attractive offer in a very nice place to play. Whereas once Major League Soccer would have been the logical destination for somebody with his profile, now leagues like Australia’s and China’s are offering competition beyond a Middle East payday. For players like Del Piero, it’s not only a question for whether Major League Soccer wants them, it’s a matter of whether they’re willing to forgo some “newer” money to play in North America.

Back to Australia: Sydney opens their A-League season on Oct. 5 in New Zealand against Wellington Phoenix. Last year, Wellington finished one place above Sydney in the regular season (fourth). If he played, we should get some immediate (if vague) idea on how much del Piero will impact Sydney’s fortunes.

A quick glance at the A-League, and it looks like Major League Soccer circa 2002. The league will play with 10 teams this season, having drawn an average of 10,496 people to matches last year (ranging from Melbourne’s 19,208 to 3,170 for now-defunct Gold Coast). Six teams make the playoffs, with the regular season’s top-two finishers byed into the semifinals.

Australia also has a salary structure similar to Major League Soccer’s – a low salary cap for core players ($2.5 million for the upcoming season), though clubs are allowed to sign a domestic, international and junior (U-23) “Marquee” player whose salary does not count against the cap.

Del Piero fills Sydney’s International Marquee slot, becoming by far the highest profile player to join the A-League. Other International Marquee players include Adaleide United’s Sergio van Dijk (Netherlands, perhaps Indonesia), Brisbane Roar’s Thomas Broich (Germany), Melbourne Heart’s former D.C. United star Fred (Brazil), Melbourne Victory’s Marcos Flores (Argentina), and Perth Glory’s Shane Smeltz (New Zealand).

Before Del Piero signed, Smeltz was the only marquee player who had been capped at the senior level for his country, having earned 43 appearances with New Zealand. Del Piero appeared 91 times for Italy, winning the 2006 World Cup.

Even with that resumé, it’s difficult to say whether this signing will spark broader interest in A-League soccer. The league’s matches were on FOX Soccer last year, but the differences in time zones made watching the matches prohibitive for fans in the United States.

Today, however, even before deciding to write this post, I looked up start times for A-League matches, knowing they now have one player I want to watch. Sydney’s first match of the season will kick off at 11:30 p.m. Pacific on a Friday. I should be able to manage that.